A pandemic Christmas: services move online, people stay at home

Families who usually gather for Christmas for a hearty, extended meal stayed at home on Friday, services were held online and gift exchanges were discreet during one of the most unusual holiday seasons in decades.

The coronavirus left almost no one unaffected.

Patricia Hager, 60, delivered homemade caramel buns for breakfast to family and friends in Bismarck, ND, a state that was only reached at the end of the pandemic, but was hit hard. It seemed that every time she opened the door this holiday season, someone left smoked salmon, baskets of nuts or crackers.

“This year the love of Christmas is expressed at the door,” she said. “I’m happy that people will probably be with us next year with the vaccines. I can give up anything for that.”

With a child due in February, Song Ju-hyeon from Paju, South Korea, near Seoul, said her home is the only place where she feels safe. The government registered 1,241 new cases on Friday, a new daily record for the country.

“It doesn’t look like Christmas anyway, there are no Christmas carols on the streets,” she said.

“It’s Christmask,” said the Daily Nation newspaper in Kenya, where an increase in cases has prompted doctors to end a brief strike on Christmas Eve. The celebrations were silenced in central East Africa because the curfew prevented church vigils during the night.

Pope Francis gave his Christmas blessing from within the Vatican, interrupting his traditional speech from the balcony of St. Peter’s Basilica to tens of thousands in St. Peter’s Square. Tourism in Italy has virtually disappeared and government restrictions on coronavirus for the holiday have thwarted any plan by residents to crowd in the square.

Citing a cause for optimism, Francis said that the invention of the COVID-19 vaccines shines “lights of hope” in the world. In a passionate plea to international leaders, companies and organizations, he said they must ensure that the most vulnerable and needy in the pandemic are the first in line to receive vaccines.

The bells rang around Bethlehem as the traditional birthplace of Jesus celebrated. But the closure of Israel’s international airport to foreign tourists, along with Palestinian restrictions that prohibit intercity travel in the areas they administer in the Israeli-occupied West Bank, have kept visitors at bay.

In Beijing, official churches abruptly canceled mass after China’s capital was placed on high alert after two confirmed cases of COVID-19 last week. Two new asymptomatic cases were reported Friday.

With economies staggering around the world, it was not a year of lavish gifts. Robin Sypniewski, from Middlesex County, New Jersey, has been released twice from her job serving school meals and is now on reduced hours, as her husband retires next week as a garbage collector and his daughter struggles with student debt.

Sypniewski, 58, bought his daughter pajamas, compared to a diamond bracelet last Christmas. Her husband received a $ 20 plaque describing his Polish heritage, compared to a tablet computer last year.

“The bills have to be paid this month and next. With reduced hours, it’s difficult, ”she said.

In São Paulo, Brazil, taxi driver Dennys Abreu, 56, sailed through the vast city at night to cover the $ 300 monthly payment for his car, which he bought after losing a job in construction. It is estimated that 14 million Brazilians are unemployed.

“All I can do is work as hard as I can, survive and hope that damn virus will disappear next year,” he said.

Religious services have changed online. The Catholic Archdiocese of Los Angeles celebrated five masses in the Cathedral of Our Lady of the Angels, with a maximum audience of 130 people, compared to a pre-pandemic capacity of about 3,000. All were broadcast live.

The Chapel of the Cross in Chapel Hill, North Carolina, held five services, but personal attendance was limited to 25 people, compared with 2,000 before the pandemic. A Christmas Eve contest that is usually presented in person has been recorded and shown online.

“I must remember that Christians have celebrated Christmas for hundreds of years in all kinds of circumstances,” said the reverend Elizabeth Marie Melchionna, the church’s dean. “Some of the external appearances are different, but the essence remains the same. What hasn’t changed is that essential longing and the celebration of love that is born at Christmas.”

In Paris, members of the Notre Dame Cathedral choir sang inside the church for the first time since a 2019 fire, wearing helmets and protective clothing against building conditions.

Border closures and bottlenecks frustrated some plans. Thousands of drivers were trapped in their trucks in the English port of Dover, without the coronavirus tests that France requires amid growing concern over a new, apparently more contagious variant of the virus. The British army and French firefighters were brought in to help speed up testing and free food was distributed.

With Colombia closing its borders to prevent the virus from spreading, Venezuelan migrants could not return home on vacation. Yakelin Tamaure, a nurse who left Venezuela in economic difficulties two years ago, wanted to visit her mother, who is taking care of a broken foot.

“I try to send money to her, but it’s not the same as being there,” she said.

Many accepted the restrictions calmly. A pre-pandemic Christmas in Ann Arbor, Michigan, for Kristin Schrader, 53, meant offering a big dinner with appetizers for her brother who visits Denver, his parents, who live in the city, and friends who show up. This year, she opted for a socially distant walk with her husband and 13-year-old daughter to watch a man dressed as Santa Claus in a canoe on the Huron River with his dog. A discreet fondue dinner was also on the agenda.

“It is very difficult when all of you are sitting in the same house to gather a lot of emotion for the three of us when we are just looking at each other for months and months on end,” she said.

The 70 residents of St. Peters, a retirement home in the city of El Astillero, in northern Spain, held videoconferences or 30-minute visits with the family, separated by an acrylic wall.

“This terrible thing has come to us, so we must accept and deal with it patiently,” said Mercedes Arejula, who met with his mother.

The nursing home allowed only one relative to enter. A granddaughter blew kisses from outside.


Spagat reported from San Diego.


AP correspondents contributed to this report from around the world.

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